Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his “Inglourious Basterds.” It seems to me, looking back on everything from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Death Proof” that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of “Basterds.” The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby — which in certain shots doesn’t look so crowded at all — and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film — the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining “basterds” of the title — Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is — surprise! — not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called “Inglourious Basterds” and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command — this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They’re not only not the heroes, they’re pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It’s left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we’re probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it’s tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let’s say we spent two hours watching the members of “The Dirty Dozen” get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of “Basterds” is taken straight out of the “Dirty Dozen” playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That’s about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I’m not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino’s beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and “Hostel” director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in “Jackie Brown.” And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces – the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It’s amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here — you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa’s scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There’s some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted “let’s introduce the major characters of the movie” scene ever produced.

It’s reminiscent of the yard scenes in “The Dirty Dozen”, which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth — who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of “The Dirty Dozen”) — you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like “Jackie Brown” better than “Pulp Fiction“, but that’s really only because I don’t care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It’s still masterful stuff, but I didn’t quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. “Jackie Brown” is joyous, though, and “Kill Bill” — all of it — is executed without a hitch. There’s nothing wrong with that two-part picture. “Reservoir Dogs” is a heist classic. I liked “Death Proof” — it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with “Basterds” may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make “Gangs of New York” and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.” Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess — my prediction — is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words “inglourious basterds” are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine’s service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it’s Aldo Raine’s name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) – played by Pitt – is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)

From Torture Porn to Torturous Moron

July 11, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Mike Gillis

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the early and formative moviemaking years for me. But it wasn’t Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman or Woody Allen who first caught my attention. I was drawn to the likes of George Romero and David Cronenberg and a young Sam Raimi. I was also inspired by Tom Savini, who baptized special makeup effects in a well of gore. Those were bloody days, when splatter films littered the cinematic landscape.

I still have a soft spot for the well-crafted horror picture — see “The Descent,” for instance — and can still appreciate a clever effect when I see one. And although my tastes now run with the camp of “what you don’t show is worse than what you do — I can easily stomach the gore.

But as far as horror goes, there is very little that makes the grade these days. That includes the oeuvre of Eli Roth.

I can’t say all of Roth’s films are bad. I haven’t seen “Hostel – Part II.” I’m not interested.

Cabin Fever” was overrated, dull homage. It owes a debt to “The Evil Dead” and a forgiving audience. Is it funny? I guess, but who cares? It’s just a poorly crafted movie. “Hostel” is a bore.

What’s curious about the rise and fall of Eli Roth — and he is falling hard — is that he worked diligently to construct his own moviemaker mythology and people fell for it. Boy can he talk. Hundreds of interviews with Roth are scattered across the web, from the biggest publications to the most minuscule genre offerings. Almost every one of them features Roth talking about how he resurrected the genre, how his film is art, how he has saved horror.

I’ve noticed this: Almost to the critic, those who stand behind Roth gush to mention they have talked to director, sometimes regularly, and he’s a really nice guy. Some critics even choose to defend Roth without having seen his films, because … he’s a nice guy who worked hard.

So, is it cold of me to say, who cares?

I learned some time ago that a film isn’t any better because its director is a nice guy. Isn’t it about whether the movie can stand up on its own? There are very few directors who deserve to take sole credit for a film — a so-and-so film, a film by so-and-so — but so many do, as if the director is the picture.

New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell recently caught up with Roth in Interview Magazine. Mitchell made a point about exploitation’s particular style and characteristics, not without affection. Roth, however, wouldn’t have it. His films are art, he insisted, and the violence is an outlet for a country that fears terrorists are about to lop off the heads of Americans at every corner.

Huh?

Roth has gone on in subsequent interviews to blame the poor box office receipts for “Hostel 2” on rampant piracy and moronic critics who reviewed a leaked work print. As others have pointed out, he has blamed everyone but himself.

Could it be the movie just isn’t good? Could it also be, as moviegoers seemed to indicate, the appetite for “torture porn” is already satiated? How many “Hostels” and “Saws” can people tolerate? Roth’s plea to fans to flock to the cinema for “Hostel – Part II’s” second week or the film would vanish forever seems to have gone unheeded.

Of course there will always be an audience for Grand Guignol. And fine films will continue to be made that fit squarely and successfully in that genre. The difference, of course, is they will survive on their own, without any prompting from behind the camera.

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